A Tangle of Realities

Quintan Ana Wikswo, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far

Coffee House Press, 293pp, $19.95, ISBN 9781566894050

reviewed by Jason DeYoung

In an interview with Maxine Chernoff, Quintan Ana Wikswo says this about her writing: 'I’m interested in war and romantic love because they are two profoundly unstable states in which normalcy vanishes, familiar boundaries dissolve, and we face the ultimate intimate encounter with dreams and nightmares, fantasy and horror, the unreal and the sublime.'

Smart, intoxicating, mysterious, Wikswo’s debut collection of short stories, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far, is filled with 'ultimate intimate encounters.' In stories that diverge from the maps and jettison superficialities, she descends into new narrative territories often to come face-to-face with the unknown. War and love, family and beloveds, reality and fantasy are her themes, but they are unlike the stories of these subjects you may have read before. A kind of alchemy is at work here within Wikswo’s sensual writing. Writing that comes close to being felt bodily and brightly heard. The narrative-camera is unique as well, as it seems at once very close – its gaze delighting in the earthliness of its subject – and yet there is distance, as the pages are often sparse, most carrying just a few dozen sentences. By flipping through its near-empty pages one can rightly assume that Wikswo disregards the line between poetry and prose.

But that’s just the writing. Paired with the stories is Wikswo’s photography, photographs taken with 'film cameras manufactured by slave labor during fascist dictatorships.' The images are eerie, surreal and murky with recognisable images often superimposed onto more expressionistic backgrounds. Nearly all are lush in colour with some combination of landscape and manmade object. At times the photographs are obviously related to the prose, but more often they’re abstract dreamscapes, registering mood, colour or tenor. The effect heightens the sense that as we read we are moving from multiple levels, different states of consciousness, different realities. Reading the book with patience, gazing at the images as they fit into and break up the prose enriches the narrative moments as they land. Often it’s a visceral sensation that comes off these photographs of thick underbrush or abandoned buildings reclaimed by emerald vegetation or coral-pink nautiluses that suggest in utero foetuses.

The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far opens with 'The Cartographer’s Khorovod.' A khorovod, we are told in the extensive 'Notes on Methodology' at the end of the book, is an 'incantatory, ritual story, song, and dance that unfolds in a round or spiral form.' The story is of a wartime love affair revisited through memory and an exchange of letters many years after peace. The letters are of anything but love. They talk of maps and snow and winter and sailing ships. It’s not until near the end that the narrator confesses to the woman that he wishes that they were together, lamenting that their lives are 'the consequence of consequence.' It is a melancholic story without resolution, as often these stories are, but with a kind of poetry, flow and rhythm that counterbalances its lack of traditional plot. Indeed, as one moves through the book it becomes apparent that Wikswo is searching for new patterns to set her narratives to, as she often foregoes typical story structure by opting for odd patterns and repetitions. Seasons, letters, births, advice become the biological architecture of her stories.

Although ‘The Hope Floating Has Carried Us This Far’ appears at the beginning to be a clutch of realistic tales, it’s quick to change that perception. A tangle of realities are portrayed here and in the following stories Wikswo submerges us into uneasy spheres. We meet the ghost of a test pilot unable to accept his death, and a lovelorn woman stranded and lost in time after a hurricane. We witness the survival tactics of a woman who can bite the heads off crows, and we behold the odd give and take between a woman who can lay eggs and the man who robs them from her: 'He sucks at my breasts and tugs my nipples, and – with one finger – presses down on the median of me until a single egg emerges from between my legs.'

The larger aesthetical pattern of book is enclosure. Over and over again, Wikswo explores spaces, structures, walls, imprisonments and mouths ('a pocket of wind and wanting'). In 'The Delicate Architecture of Our Galaxy' we meet a mother who 'lived in a mason jar.' The mother is some sort of creature, 'apparently ancient,' who eats liquorice and has tentacles like an octopus. The narrator asks, 'Is she trapped? I may as well ask the blackberries in their pot of jam.' In 'Aurora and the Storm,' the narrator says of her lost lover: 'I can sense she is here, inside the walls themselves, inside my walls.' And in the final story, 'The Double Nautilus,' the narrator explores an ancient fossil in search of a phantom scientist only to be trapped forever: 'We are subterranean tunnel lovers, and the single shell now contains us both, with no membrane in between. The divergent boundary, reversed.' These structures are often metaphors for loss of control, for worlds turned upside down, but also provide a measured hold for the characters.

In the centre of the book is 'My Nebulae, My Antilles,' perhaps my favourite of the collection because of its concept and how it acts as thematic corner stone to the collection. In it the narrator travels to the Antilles, where she plans to stay for three months. There, she says, 'with thin and inconsequential new data, my brain began to relieve itself of a lifetime of congestion.' She begins a series of letters to herself, sometimes writing as many as five a day, mailing them home to her permanent residence. The letters begin to arrive six months later, after she has returned home, and they read as if from another woman, across time, from the other side of the earth. 'Is she who I was, or who I have yet to become?' the narrator asks. Here we have a narrator experiencing a kind of internal ultimate intimate encounter, as she runs somehow emotionally perpendicular with the other woman who is also herself. They are one but different. As she writes: 'She is a buttonhole, and I am the button.'

Wikswo is the daughter of a physicist and a 'devout' preacher, and she states in her interview with Chernoff that her parents raised her with a preposterous stew of 'creation stories in an attempt to justify the world.' There is a scientific bent to these stories (in the 'Notes' section at the end she describes her time at CERN during the construction of the Large Hadron Collider) as well something that adores myth and allegory, and she uses these perhaps contradictory passions to propel the mystery of her art rather than strangle it:

When I say that she spoke, I mean it was a gently thorough inquisition concerning my life up until that moment. Her questions were too prefect, too complete, with an eerie accuracy and unfailing specificity concerning the most unspoken details of my cosmos—as though she already knew the answers to her queries about my past and was merely practicing good science, meticulously cross-checking footnotes upon exposure to new cache of primary-source materials.

The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far is a magnificent work and is perhaps the most original collection of fiction I have read in a long while. These stories stretch and bend its reader as they come off the page at times like artefacts and at other times like something organic and muddy, made of bone and throbbing with an indefatigable bloodstream. They are stories that love order, beauty and anomalies. Their vibrant (and at times primal) prose pushes to find something new in writing and art, and Wikswo refuses to repose into exhaustion or fashionable politics. But don’t forget the impressionistic illustrations. These images linked to stories that are at once enigmatic and yet emotionally relatable take this book into a realm all its own.